‘Contemptuous’ Personalities Are a Thing, It Turns Out

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You know the type: They roll their eyes at everybody (like that mean ape from Planet of the Apes), they’re constantly sarcastic (like Matthew Perry on Friends), and they’re constantly finding fault with everybody around them (Trump, Trump, Oscar the Grouch). Pop culture has long known these curmudgeons and grouches all belong to the same general category of difficult person (or trash-monster, in Oscar’s case), and now psychological science has a name for it: contemptuousness.

In a new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, University of California, Davis researcher Roberta Schriber and her colleagues claim, for the first time, that contemptuousness, defined as a tendency to see others as falling short of your standards, is dispositional, or a regular, personality-level pattern of responding to things in a certain way that is stable over time. (As in, everybody gets angry, but not everybody has hotheaded, road-raging dispositional anger.) By establishing dispositional contemptuousness as A Thing In Psychology, psychologists can better grasp a repeated behavior that’s proven to be destructive.

Thus far, psychology research has looked at contempt as an emotion or reaction. It’s got an impressively severe résumé: killing marriages, shaming co-workers, and leading to terrorism. Past research suggests that contempt has three primary components. First of all, somebody is violating your standard of behavior, be they of your class, culture, or religion. Second, there’s some value judgment happening, namely that they are worse than you in some crucial way (which makes sense to me, since contempt always brought to mind a sneering English butler). Then comes an impulse to get this person, or persons, out of your life, like by undermining their reputation, ostracizing them, or forcing them to pay for a wall between your countries. As a disposition, then, it would mean that all of the above isn’t just something you do at a given moment, but is a pattern within your personality — in this view, dispositionally contemptuous people are chronically judging, sneering, and pushing away people.

To find out if it is indeed stable, Schriber and her colleagues did what psychologists do to measure personality: They built a scale, or personality questionnaire. After a pilot study, they settled on a ten-item test called the Dispositional Contempt Scale, where respondents rate how they agree or disagree with statements like “I often lose respect for others,” “I would never try to make someone feel worthless,” and “I often feel like others are wasting my time.”

Then they took the scale into the wild, giving the scale to participants recruited from Amazon Mechanical Turk (347 people for one sample, 223 for another ) and undergraduate psychology courses (390 people). They also tested for dispositional anger (or how ready they are to rage); dispositional disgust (or how easily offended they are); dispositional envy (or how readily jealous they are); dispositional hubristic pride (self-inflation); dispositional authentic pride (feeling happy with accomplishments); perfectionism; self-esteem; overt narcissism; covert narcissism; and the Big-5 personality traits. From all that testing, the authors found that contempt-proneness is indeed stable, and that it has a “dual nature”: contemptuous people are disagreeable — they couldn’t care less care about making you happy — yet they also feel like others are unfairly imposing their standards on them.

In a second experiment, Schriber tested to see how contemptuousness relates to the “dark triad” traits of narcissism, psychopathy (or having disregard for others’ emotions), and Machiavellianism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it related to all three, especially Machiavellianism — maybe since contemptuous people see others as less than, they don’t have a problem manipulating them. In a third experiment, the authors found associations between contemptuousness and a need for social dominance, as well as a tendency toward racism. To tease apart contemptuousness and anger, a fourth study asked respondents to list someone they felt lots of anger toward and someone they felt contempt for, and found that immediate family and romantic partners were twice as likely to be rage-inducing than contempt-inducing (as Thanksgiving dinner reminds us every year). Another study related contemptuousness with relationship satisfaction, and as you might have learned from dating, having a contemptuous partner had a negative effect on people’s commitment and satisfaction in a relationship.

Given the survey-oriented nature of the study, the authors can’t really isolate where contemptuousness comes from. But they did find strong associations between being contempt-prone and having low self-esteem. One reading: If you spend all your time assessing how others fall short, you might be conditioned to find more faults in yourself. Covert narcissism, where you quietly assume that nobody is cool enough for you, also came up a lot with contemptuousness.

The authors also found links with anxious attachment, or the nervous, nail-biting sense that the relationship you’re in is unequivocally headed for catastrophe, a pattern stemming from childhood, according to researchers. “A history of perceiving caretakers as unavailable in times of need, for example, may predispose one to seeing others as generally unreliable in their roles and responsibilities,” Schriber writes. That enables sympathy for the grouches among us: If they despise everybody around them, it might be because they felt abandoned as a kid. And if you identify with contemptuousness, there’s hope: With a little self-compassion, you might be easier on others. And yourself.